When Sandra Gajic started as president and chief executive officer of the Overture Center for the Arts three weeks ago, she arrived here by way of, well, the world.
Born in the former Yugoslavia, she has degrees in piano and economics from the University of Belgrade. She did volunteer work in Sudanese refugee camps and eventually settled in Canada by way of Libya and the United Kingdom. She worked in Toronto for 16 years before most recently serving as a theater director in Vancouver, Canada. Two of her grandparents were Holocaust survivors. She speaks six languages, including Serbo-Croatian, French, Spanish and Italian.
So, just your typical Madison job applicant.
Gajic (pronounced GUY-itsch) and I talked at her Overture office one recent morning. Her answer to my predictable first question — her biggest initial surprise about Madison — was unpredictable.
“I think it’s the disparity in the community that I found most surprising, maybe because I live and work downtown” and see it, she said. “It troubles me.”
“So, how do we truly open our doors to the community and remove the barriers? As much as we do a lot of great work in the community — there are so many programs in schools — there is so much more to be done. So the initial impressions are that there’s a much greater (socioeconomic) divide than I originally thought.”
Gajic dove headlong into Madison. She started here the Monday after her last Friday in Vancouver. On her first weekend, she attended the Cap Times Idea Fest’s keynote event. The next afternoon she was at a Goodman Center dedication and went to Bucky on Parade that night. She went to the YWCA’s two-day Racial Justice Summit, which she described as “inspirational.”
The following Saturday she danced with many others at the Latino Art Fair at Overture. “It was all free,” she said of the art fair. “You didn’t need any special clothes, you could just come. It was fantastic, families with little kids, babes in arms.”
In between, she’s been attending lots of Overture performances and begun one-on-one conversations with each of Overture’s 95 full- and part-time employees. The day we talked, she was convening senior Overture staff that afternoon to review the center’s strategic plan to decide whether it needs tweaking.
Quite the pace, but it is clear that Gajic sees Overture, the imposing 14-year-old arts center on State Street, as needing a new chapter, one that follows a national and international trend of art centers shedding their reputations for elitism and becoming de facto community centers, places where diversity is celebrated.
She tracked things back to the 1960s, when the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and the Lincoln Center in New York City opened as homes to legacy arts organizations such as the opera, symphony and the ballet.
Centers have been slow to evolve, she said, in part because of “institutional inertia” as well as the “natural flow” of how organizations develop. “Now the latest generation (of change) — it has only been happening the past two or three years — is really blurring the lines of what community centers are doing and what art centers do.”
Some local background: In the late 1970s, Paul Soglin, our past and present mayor, championed a rebuilt and expanded Madison Civic Center, which then opened in 1980.
In 2004 it was replaced by Overture, which dwarfed the old civic center. It is a glistening, state-of-the-art entertainment behemoth made possible by philanthropist Jerry Frautschi and spouse Pleasant Rowland, who donated an astonishing $205 million, at the time the largest single gift for performing arts in American history.
Overture later endured a messy squabble over money and governance. Six years ago it morphed from being a public facility into a nonprofit one. The flexibility that comes with that nonprofit structure, Gajic said, helped attract her here.
It appears that if Gajic and a supportive 25-member board have their way, Overture is embarking on a major new chapter, one focused not only on welcoming all demographics, but developing programs that draw them. Put another way, the goal is fundamental change, not clever marketing.
Gajic said she yearns to ramp up “the relevancy of our program to diverse communities. … I think taking the idea of Overture into the community is where I really believe our future is.”
Part of that, she said, includes developing a different type of residency program for up-and-coming arts organizations and small nonprofits.
On a different track, Gajic said Overture wants to have community conversations about traditional fare regarding “some pretty dated and possibly controversial topics,” such as the racial undertones in musicals such as “The King & I” and “Miss Saigon.”
As we finished, I asked Gajic to define her personal brand. An interesting question, she said. “Who is Sandra? I actually take great pride that I’m fearless. I move through life looking for what the obstacles might be.”
She said she moved beyond her job description to fight for equity and inclusion among staff and artists while at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. And when she needed extra money as a single parent (she has two grown children), she chose to teach for years at an inner city music school.
Gajic already adores State Street and sees it as the city’s “living room.” She added: “We (at Overture) are not, I don’t think, so how do we do that?” The opportunity is there, with people of all ages, including Millennials, living downtown.
“So, what is our role as the city’s art center, in a living room sense — what is the programming we are going to put in there? Because, unless there is something other than the light behind the beautiful façade, there’s no soul.”
So, in conclusion, I ask what would she hope people will say about her impact as time passes?
She didn’t hesitate: “That Overture has opened the door, that it has become a place to go even if you don’t have a ticket.”